The Immigration Station at Angel Island
Immigration Station, center, ca. 1930
Angel Island State Park has a rich and fascinating history. One of the most intriguing parts of that history is the Immigration Station that was located at China Cove on the north side of the island.
From 1910 to 1940, the Immigration Station processed nearly a million immigrants from more than 80 countries. Unlike Ellis Island on the East Coast, which welcomed immigrants with “Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Angel Island Immigration Station was known as “The Guardian of the Western Gate.” It protected against unwelcome immigrants, rather than welcoming all.
Chinese women and children arriving at Angel Island
Approximately 175,000 of those immigrants were from China. Because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, they were banned from entering the United States unless they could either prove they were United States citizens, or that they had husbands or fathers who were citizens. The Immigration Service detained Chinese immigrants at Angel Island for months or more while their applications and any appeals were considered. The application process included lengthy questioning sessions, in which the detainees had to prove their claims were legitimate.
Detainees stayed in separate men’s and women’s barracks during this long wait. Children under 12 remained with the women. No contact between men and women was allowed until their cases were concluded. One can only imagine the anxiety and heartache of divided families and of all the detainees waiting for the final decision.
Poetry carved into the Immigration Station walls
The first section of Angel Island to become a state park, Ayala Cove on the west side of the island, was turned over to the state in 1954. In 1963 most of the rest of the island became a state park, including the former Immigration Station. California State Parks originally planned to demolish the Immigration Station. But in 1970, Ranger Alexander Weiss discovered Chinese poetry carved into the wooden men’s barracks walls, partially obscured by layers of old paint. This discovery was the impetus for the saving of the Immigration Station and interpretation of its past use. Since that time more poems have been uncovered and translated. Many speak of the longing and frustration felt by the detainees. Poems in other languages have been discovered, too, including Japanese and the Sikh language, highlighting that though 80% of the detainees were Chinese, other non-European nationalities were also detained. (None of these other groups experienced the same length of detention and grueling application process as the Chinese.)
The Angel Island Immigration Station is now a National Historic Landmark. Today, visitors can view many poems and read their poignant translations while touring the barracks. Interpretive information throughout the site tells the story of the Chinese and others who passed through the “Guardian of the Western Gate,” some of whom literally left their mark.
For more information on the Chinese poetry, visit the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundationâ€™s Poetry page at http://aiisf.org/education/station-history/poetry
For more information on Angel Island, including visiting the island and touring the Immigration Station, go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=468